Sitting on a living room floor, I’m learning to make yomaris – a traditional Nepalese desert specific to the Newar community in Nepal. I'm visiting Panauti, an off-the-beaten-path town located just southeast of Kathmandu. My teacher is an experienced cook, and also the grandmother of the family whose home I’m staying in. She laughs in a kindhearted way at my slightly lopsided desserts, and moves with proficiency and speed to adjust them. Bonding with the family over cooking is a heartwarming and memorable component of my trip to Nepal – but it’s also a part of a much grander picture: one in which travel is acting as a force to close the gender gap.
In Nepal, women often play a behind-the-scenes role in society. Husbands – the traditional breadwinners of the family – go out and work (mostly in agriculture), and women stay home to care for their families, acting as caregivers, housecleaners and craftswomen for all of the family’s needs. Due to these roles, women’s voices are often disregarded in terms of how much say they have in societal issues. Especially in more rural communities, women face even greater problems – whether that be prejudice, lack of education or gender-based violence.
But there is hope, and it comes in the form of something as simple as a traveler’s lodging choice. Under the umbrella of Royal Mountain Travel, a locally-run tourism company, is a program called CommunityHomestay – a network of family-run homestays throughout Nepal. The program is run predominantly by women, and acts as a beautiful example of how tourism can empower. By providing women with the platform and resources to launch and manage homestay programs in their communities, they are suddenly armed with the ability to financially support themselves – giving them the confidence to claim equal rights.
The CommunityHomestay program has flourished, due in part to the rise in popularity of living local when traveling abroad. Travelers have the opportunity to participate in an immersive experience in Nepal and connect directly with locals for a greater understanding of the communities they visit. Rather than a glossy, hotel-centric experience of a destination, travelers have the opportunity to catch a glimpse of what it’s like to live in Nepal through staying in a local’s home, exploring the community with their host and learning more about the intricacies of Nepalese life. The program offers a win/win opportunity – one in which travelers gain a deeper understanding of local life through a unique and memorable travel experience, and locals are empowered through something as universally appealing as travel.
Studies show that an investment in women is an investment in the entire community, and CommunityHomestay is no exception. Community participants explained to me that they have more confidence in speaking their opinion, choosing how money is spent and more. And there’s a ripple effect as well – members are taking more pride in their communities, which is showcased through examples such as cleaner streets and many locals' renewed interest in their culture and what makes it unique.
Royal Mountain Travel has taken an in-depth and well-thought-out approach to building out the CommunityHomestay program to ensure that travelers have extraordinary experiences. Beginning with a tourism training program for the local participants and soon-to-be business owners, including English classes as well as visits to Kathmandu to stay in a hotel (to gain a firsthand understanding of how guests are treated), Royal Mountain Travel provides a platform that empowers women and sets them up for success. Sustainability is integrated into every component of the program, and the team strives to ensure that local tourism dollars support the economy, culture and environment of communities across Nepal.
Once onboarded as members of CommunityHomestay, the female entrepreneurs are given the network and market to build economic opportunities from their very own homes. When a traveler visits the homestay, they are able to see firsthand what it’s like to live in Nepal, how to cook local cuisine, the techniques behind artisanal crafts and more. And while Nepal is mostly known as a tourist destination for travel experiences such as trekking, CommunityHomestay offers an off-the-beaten-path adventure to visit rural areas of the country – another component which helps to funnel money into a community that wouldn’t normally benefit from tourism dollars.
As I sit with my host family enjoying my homecooked meal in Panauti, I can’t help but to smile. It’s a beautiful thing when something as simple as breaking bread with new friends can help to improve our world.